Tackling Wicked [Policy] Problems

Considering this is my first blog post, I thought it would be appropriate to commence on a topic that I will be writing about with more frequency in the future- a topic that is the focus of my thesis.

I spent much time during the working stages of my literature review examining design and sustainable design literature. It was halfway through my reading and researching efforts that I came to realise I had found my “gap” – building the bridge between design thinking and (sustainable) policy design.

Little has been published in this area, particularly as peer-reviewed research. According to my (rather superficial) reading at the time, I had only discovered two articles that explicitly discussed the use of design thinking with policy design. (Note: I say explicitly and not to mean loosely in general). The first article I found was published by Derek Miller, founder of The Policy Lab. The second, a document published by the APS titled: Tackling Wicked Problems: A public policy perspective.

Yes, this document doesn’t refer to the term ‘design thinking’. However, I believed it to reflect this concept since the publication had been based on and around Rittel and Webber’s paper – which has been widely accepted as playing a major role in the foundation of design thinking.

Not convinced? Well here is an excerpt:

“Tackling wicked problems is an evolving art. They require thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them. They often require broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches. This may result in the occasional failure or need for policy change or adjustment. “

Sound familiar? Of course it does! That is design thinking!

The fact that the Australian government had published a paper referring to design literature was astonishing and exciting. Not to mention this paper was published back in 2007! What has happened since? Well, aside from acknowledging that there is a need for new and ‘radical/innovative’ thinking- not a lot has been done. This could partially be due to the fact that designing policy outcomes take a significant amount of time, but I largely believe it is more to do with the fact that little research has been made into understanding exactly how policy design can adopt and should use design thinking.

For the most part, this publication is a nice summary of Rittel’s paper with a few contemporary examples thrown into the mix. Considering this superficial account, it wasn’t surprising that the paper signs off the second chapter openly admitting to confusion over the adoption of this ‘radical’ new idea:

“We can only speculate about the reasons behind the rise and recognition of wicked policy problems at this point in time […] Perhaps the technological and information revolutions we have experienced enable more people to become active participants in problem-solving and, in so doing, increase the complexity of the process”

The intentions are sound, and the basic understanding of what changes need to be made have been highlighted, “The handling of wicked problems requires holistic rather than linear thinking. This is thinking capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships between the full range of causal factors and policy objective”. The problem with this paper is the APS don’t realise that what they are in fact referring to is design thinking.

Even for a publication this size, the literature is thin. More so, no references relate to design thinking literature (given that at this time DT had not gained momentum yet) or even service design literature. This report feels like it is screaming: ‘I want to change, I know where I want to go, but I dont know how to get there!’.  Now, 4 years later, developments in design thinking may provide enough support for policy makers to achieve their goals. The next question is how.

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